The global political system that prevails today is as self-interested as it was during the Cold War, which is why Russia for example behaves today as it did back in the 1960’s when it was under Soviet rule. Though the window display changes, the product on the shelf has remained the same: economic super-powers backed by military might still manipulate the masses to consolidate their positions and gain dominance over their idealogical enemies. It is easy to dismiss such commentary as cynical or pessimistic but ask those who sleep on the streets in wealthy Western democracies, or those who are dying of Malaria and starvation in Africa, or those Palestinians who have lost their children in Gaza.
The media has its part to play in all this too, more so in fact, since the advent of the Internet Age. Global corporations own many news and media outlets, pushing a single agenda aligned to a particular political viewpoint – just think of Rupert Murdoch’s vast empire. It is increasingly difficult to recognise objective editorial content from sponsored editorial direction in many cases. The 21st Century “truth” is now an arbitrary remark, but one fact does remain and that is to sustain any kind of order at all, a psychological war is waged on all fronts – both domestic and foreign.
Photographer Chris Barrett and researcher/writer Gianluca Spezza have been collaborating on Icons of Rhetoric, an ongoing image and text based project exploring the visual representation of North Korea. With the help of The Impossible Project and Square Magazine they have produced a small but ingenious accordion style photobook that plays on the political pamphlet without being so obvious as to be dismissed as kitsch imitation.
The small double-sided publication comes with an introductory essay from Spezza outlining the rationale for their joint venture and contextualising it within the given framework of visual representation of the “most isolated country in the world”. Barrett, a seasoned documentary photographer, combines old and new technology to produce images that deliberately subvert the subject-production-dissemination relationship.
Ri Chun Hee, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s most aired newsreader, the clothes pin showing either Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, the heroic female soldier, and the Pungsan Dog are just some examples of the symbols considered by Barrett to visualise the Korean state’s socio-political rhetoric. These images are created by using a smart phone to photograph a computer screen (they are originally sourced from online media), and then turned into physical objects with the use of instant film by the Impossible Instant Lab device (something akin to a Polaroid photograph).
The intention behind using online media to source the content is supported by Spezza’s argument that this is how the West forms its visual opinion of the DPRK and therefore should be investigated and analyzed. After all, the project is about propaganda – both the DPRK’s output and the West’s interpretation. The work seeks to question the authenticity of images and their subsequent meaning within the wider context of valued modes of information gathering. This use of online media also refers directly to the DPRK’s recent developments in technology and media broadcasting, being that under Kim Jong Un’s rule the country has introduced a more proactive approach, including ventures into the IT market and interviews with mainstream media from the UK and US.
So, while focusing attention specifically on the DPRK, Icons of Rhetoric simultaneously has implications for those inside and outside the communist state. It encourages comparisons to other states, and alludes to similar though much more shrouded methods of systematic political indoctrination by government agencies on their citizens, as a way of maintaining current power structures.
With discerning text and enigmatic images, this little photobook is a clever way to introduce Barrett and Spezza’s visual and literary project.